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Soul call: Al Green marks 40 years as a pastor

R&B legend Al Green is celebrating 40 years as pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in the Whitehaven enclave of Memphis.  

When Rev. Al Green gave his first sermon in 1976, the message was “I believe therefore I am.”

“I just believe what The Word says. I don’t try and explain, explain, explain,” says Green. “Every man’s interpretation of (religion) is, I suppose, to his own liking. But I don’t think God is going to leave you much room to mistake about it.”

Sunday, Dec. 18, the soul singing superstar turned Baptist preacher was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis, Tenn.

The occasion offered a rare opportunity to sit down with Green at his offices in the Whitehaven area of the city.

An interview with Green is a little like watching a one-man show. He doesn’t answer questions so much as respond with stories and jokes, going off on random riffs, singing snatches of his famous hits, and doing spot-on imitations of Tom Jones and Elvis Presley, among others. Whatever wild tangents or diversions he takes, the discussion always returns back to Green’s faith. It’s what led him to devote his life to the ministry and open Full Gospel Tabernacle on Dec. 18, 1976.

His music career — both gospel and secular — has proceeded in fits and starts since then. Green has not been in the studio proper in the eight years since the release of 2008’sLay it Down, an album co-produced by the Roots’ Amir “Questlove” Thompson, which paired him with a generation of younger artists like John Legend and Anthony Hamilton.

But week after week he can be found leading services at his Full Gospel Tabernacle. The church’s congregation is spirited, if relatively small — but swells with the tourist season, as fans and curious visitors come from all over to see Green preach and sing.

He doesn’t view these people as interlopers, but rather as pilgrims. “You might have come on your vacation — we get a lot of that,” says Green. “Well, we say while you’re here why don’t we do a little bit of Amazing Grace; it may help you along your way. I don’t take it as anything else but an opportunity. If God gives me this audience, I’ll preach The Word to them.”

Over the last few years, as his concert schedule dwindled, it appeared that Green was inching towards a formal retirement from the stage. “It was burning me out,” he says. “I just wanted to take some time off to gather my head.” Today, Green allows he may eventually return to the road – noting the possibility of a tour of the Far East next year.

Asked if he has any remaining career goals — he’s a 14-time Grammy winner, a member of the Rock and Roll, Gospel and Songwriters Halls of Fame — Green sighs. “I done did a lot of stuff, man. There’s some things I’d like to do, maybe [play] three or four cities of the United States and then go back to the house and read some more of the (Bible),” he says, chuckling. “I’m not hankering for anything, not really.”

Green, who turned 70 in April, thinks often about heaven, the great reward that awaits. As to whether he’s done enough to make his way in, he seems assured. “If you try and sincerely try, that’s all we need. (Religion) says we’ll perfect that which is lacking in you,” he says excitedly. “We’ll perfect that which is lacking in you. If you’ve got any shortcomings, we’ll take care of that. Just try your best. That’s what I do.”

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